Livin’ large and takin’ charge, big boy!
It certainly catches one of its stars in the absolute wane of his career. Martin Landau isn’t that far from his Oscar, but it feels like light years. Halle Berry, meanwhile, is a few years from her own Oscar, but in the other direction. It’s that uncomfortable meeting in the middle that wrecks the movie; late career and early career can both, it seems, produce pretty ridiculous movies.
Berry has a surprisingly interesting comedic touch and Natalie Dessalle is often a hoot as her sidekick, an endearingly chunky black woman given to outbursts of “living large and taking charge, big boy,” while they wait on the front porch of a Beverly Hills mansion. What are these two waitresses from Georgia doing in Beverly Hills? Well, something to do with a Heavy D music video for which Berry intends to audition and then after being rejected, they’re snapped up, unwittingly, into a scam intended for Martin Landau.
Nominally, Berry pretends to be the granddaughter of Landau’s one true love, but the issue so rarely comes up that you feel like the screenwriter forgot about it. It’s a film about culture clash and, of course, the posh uptight butler of Martin Landau, the best actor in the film, Ian Richardson, learns to loosen up and talk ghetto. “She says she hopes your mama don’t get played,” he mews into the phone at one point; later, he lackadaisically reads out a list of hip hop stars to a record store clerk, in the film’s best scene: “Ice T, Ice Cube, Bitch Better Have my Money . . .” It ain’t subtle, but if you don’t laugh, you’re dead inside. Our titular characters (Black American Princesses, if you wondered; I didn’t, really, but they told me anyway) learn a little about class and living their dreams.
The film, as all these films seem to do, meanders pointlessly around a scheme that seems so utterly ill conceived and idiotic that it’s never a threat (and why would a man’s nephew try to have him declared mentally incompetent when he only has two weeks to live anyway?). And then it turns on the waterworks with absolutely no success.
Let’s be frank; some called the stereotypes offensive and the film certainly plays low down and tacky, with fully five jokes about gold teeth in the first fifteen minutes. Dessalle is little more than a series of stitched together stereotypes and Richardson is little more, though since he’s white no one got upset about it. But that’s not offensive; it’s humorous. What’s offensive is when a movie sets up characters as cartoons and then about halfway through tries to get us to care. That generally doesn’t work; it certainly doesn’t here.
When Berry snarls a line like, “I’m talkin’ about the guilt,” it’s utterly risible. When she weeps on Landau’s deathbed, you’re rolling your eyes, because you can’t forget that this is the woman who called a television ad and a magazine ad in the same day a sign from God. Are these people cartoons or not? If they’re cartoons, fine, they’re cartoons and we can laugh. If they’re supposed to be real, then, yes, I suppose the stereotypes are offensive.
Only Richardson manages to walk a line, being both hilariously funny, and in the closing scene, incredibly moving. There’s a moment where it seems that the film might have been watchable; at the reading of the will, the music swells and all other sound drops; the will is read entirely in silent cinema style, with reactions selling the story. Richardson, particularly, is fantastic in this scene, going from a quiet and repressed grief to full on shock and disbelief. It’s an interesting directorial decision, one of the only ones in this film, and a moment of real legitimate acting on an emotional level, again one of the only ones in this film.
Landau doesn’t embarrass himself too much (the same cannot be said for the constant parade of hip hop cameos; LL Cool J is showing his age, isn’t he?) and he even works up tears at one point. The man was a pro, terrible movie or not.
A few laughs early in the proceedings can’t excuse the ridiculous shift in tone. Perhaps if the drama had worked, but it doesn’t. At all. So call this a misfire for all concerned, pity poor Ian Richardson . . . Oscar needs a new category: Best Actor and Actress in an Awful Movie. Richardson would have taken it this year, that’s for sure.
As if this film needed another Oscar actor; the two it had didn’t do much good.
2 out of 5 stars.